11 years ago Marvel Studios began a narrative endeavour that now spans 23 interconnected films to date. Its concluding chapter, Avengers: Endgame, amassed $2.798 billion, becoming the highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation). Soon venturing into television properties directly connected with the films and sporting major budgets on Disney+, Marvel shows no signs of slowing down.
In early October Scorsese described Marvel films as theme parks rather than cinema in an interview with Empire about his film “The Irishman.” He continued that Marvel films aren’t, “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Scorsese’s comments sparked significant debate. Soon after, Francis Ford Coppola, director of “The Godfather,” offered his support to Scorsese, going even further and calling Marvel films “despicable.”
“Cinema was always kind of a theme park, in various ways,” said Erin Hanna, Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Oregon, “going to the cinema has always been marketed to audiences as an experience.”
Scorsese recently wrote a New York Times op-ed reaffirming his position on the topic. “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk… That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted, and re-modified until they're ready for consumption,” he wrote.
The heart of Scorsese’s argument seems to be the corporate aspect of franchise films and how they are harming the industry by leaving no room for small or independent films to play in theaters, the way filmmakers intend their work to be seen. While he touches on the artistic aspects of franchise films by saying that they are made for consumption rather than art and cinematic experience, the most important commentary is that of the direction the industry is headed in.
Disney has a history of using their box office power to bulldoze competitors. Back in 2017 with the release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Disney dictated terms for theaters wanting to screen their films. Demanding 65% of ticket revenue and the largest auditorium for the film for four weeks, Disney effectively releases their films on their terms. A dangerous precedent that allows for a high level of control over movie theaters that have no leverage to fight back.
“Disney has honed in on a model that works for them, and it works so well that they’ve been able to suck up a huge portion of the box office. That model is edging out these smaller mid-budget movies from theaters, and I think that’s what Scorsese is really talking about,” said Professor Hanna.
“Both Scorsese and Coppola are doing what they have always done, which is to position themselves as a certain type of filmmaker,” said Professor Kelp-Stebbins, the first in the country to be hired as a Comic Studies professor, “there’s no reason to imagine that somehow superhero movies or action movies in general are not cinema. If the contempt is for CGI or the contempt is for fantasy or the contempt is for marketing and sellability, those have always been questions that have made film what it is,” adding, “genre has always been a problem for art. When you have a genre like western, action, or superhero we see it as being less cinematic or less art worthy than films we can’t quite pigeonhole as easily.”
Scorsese does mention in his op-ed that “the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all,” an understandable point when concern arises over the machine nature of Marvel. In instances Marvel has clashed creatively with filmmakers, “Edgar Wright was supposed to direct Ant-Man and was fired, he’s someone that strikes me as having a strong aesthetic style and particular vision, so I think it’s interesting that he couldn’t be compatible with that model. It does require artists and filmmakers to work within a lot of constraints, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not offering something, you have to think creatively to do that too,” said Professor Hanna.
Marvel’s large audience does often create a sense of low-risk, but it also allows for a magnificently large platform for creators to tell important stories and promote representation. Black Panther not only garnered a Best Picture Oscar nomination, but proved to Hollywood that representation isn’t as scary as they fear it is, and is in fact profitable. With their first Asian, Gay, and Pakistani-American Muslim superheroes coming soon, Marvel has built a base audience that allows them the opportunity to take the “risks” that other studios are still afraid of, creating diverse roles infront of and behind the camera.
Disney walks the fine line of having far too much power in the industry, and playing a part in the fall of smaller films. The media landscape is changing and theaters are becoming more often reserved for event like experiences and smaller productions make their way to streaming services as they seek a new platform and likewise the services seek more content. The industry is in flux and fosters a Hollywood atmosphere that is seemingly only interested in the low-risk nature of blockbuster franchises. Tensions are building between the old and new Hollywood. The cinematic quality of blockbuster films isn’t the root of this discussion, instead it’s the mounting fears and anger of filmmakers being pushed out of the new Hollywood in favor of profits.